Today we are beginning a series looking at the life and teaching of the Apostle Paul. Next to Jesus, Paul is perhaps the most influential person who has ever walked the earth because it was Paul’s life and teaching that gave shape to the church and it has been the Christian Church that has had the greatest impact on the world. Paul is the author of 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament and half the book of Acts is given to the journeys of Paul that helped spread the gospel and establish churches throughout the Roman Empire. It really was the work of God through Paul that made Christianity its own religion and not just a sect within Judaism and so Paul’s impact on the world is second to none.
All we know about Paul’s life comes to us through the letters he wrote to the churches and some information we find in the book of Acts. Here is what Paul tells us about his early life.
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia… a citizen of an important city… circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews…
Brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law being zealous of God… I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age…
I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and woman and putting them in prison. (Acts 22:3a, 21:39b, Philippians 3:5, Acts 22:3b, Galatians 1:14a, Acts 22:4)
So let’s start at the beginning. Tarsus (map) is in modern day Turkey and in Paul’s day it was a strategic and important city in the Roman Empire because it sat on a major trade route between Rome to the west and Africa and Asia to the south and east. If people or goods were traveling over land the only way to get through the mountains was through what was called the Cilician Gate. This gate was really a pass that went through the mountains near Tarsus.
Tarsus was so important to Rome that all landowners in the city became Roman Citizens and their children were made Roman Citizens which gave them all certain rights and privileges. Tarsus was also a free city which meant that the people did not have to pay taxes and the reason Rome did this was so that they would remain loyal to Rome and always keep the trade route and pass open.
Because of all this, Tarsus was a place where people wanted to live and it became one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire and a place of wealth, learning and culture. Great schools and universities were established in Tarsus and Paul was educated in these schools and went far in his education. At some point Paul went to Jerusalem to learn from one of the greatest Jewish rabbis of his day, Gamaliel. There was also a version of the Olympic Games held in Tarsus that Paul would have known well and those games were used by Paul as a metaphor for how we need to live out our faith. Because Tarsus was a major trading and business center many skilled craftsmen settled in this area and since Paul was known as a tentmaker it means that his parents were probably tentmakers who taught that skill and business to Paul.
Growing up in Tarsus shaped Paul in many different ways and God used all those things for His purpose and plan. Being a Roman Citizen, knowing both Greek and Hebrew, receiving an education where he learned how to think and reason and debate the finer points of philosophy and theology, having a marketable skill, understanding business, interacting with a diverse group of people from around the world and seeing how not only goods and resources travelled the Roman Road but how ideas could also spread were all important parts of Paul’s life that God used to take the gospel of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem to the world. We might think of these things as puzzle pieces that God pulled together for his larger mission.
All of our lives are also a collection of puzzle pieces that God pulls together for his purpose and mission. Each of our lives is filled with a variety of experiences, opportunities skills and learning that are unique and each piece of the puzzle is important to God’s plan. God can use the good and bad experiences of our lives for his purpose. God can use our unique home life, education, interests, skills and gifts to help others and to share the love and grace of Jesus.
When I look at my own life I realize that my education in telecommunications has given me an understanding of the importance of media in spreading the message of Jesus. While I don’t play any instruments now, growing up playing the violin, tuba, piano, guitar and bass guitar taught me a lot about music which has helped in planning worship. My three years as a manager of a movie theater often seems like a time when I was just spinning my wheels but I can see now how God used that time to teach me about business and finances as well as public relations, human resources and management which have all been helpful in being a pastor in a local church. My home life, education, work experience, gifts, interests and skills are pieces of the puzzle that God has used in my life for His purpose and each of our lives is the same.
Even the tragic and painful experiences in our lives can be used by God for his will and purpose. A friend of mine lost her mother at a young age and after she died her father struggle to keep the family going. A few years later the family was in a tragic car accident that killed one of her sisters and all of these events happened before Linda was 21 and because of all this loss and pain, Linda struggled with many issues as a young adult. In time, Linda overcame her problems, went to college and got a degree in counseling because she felt called by God to use her difficult experiences in life to help others. Linda became a school counselor and worked with teens who were going through some of the same issues she had growing up. God can use every part of our life, even our heartaches and tragedies for his purpose.
Paul understood that each part of his life could be used by God for His will and purpose which is why Paul was able to say, I know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28. I want to invite you to think about all the different pieces of your life and how God might be able to use them for His purpose and glory. How can God use your unique home life? How can God use your passion for sports or your skills in music or mechanics? How can God use your business experiences, your current job, you place in school, your circle of friends? Every piece of the puzzle that is your life is important and can be used by God for his purpose if we will offer ourselves to God.
Paul’s unique life was going to be used by God but it couldn’t be used until Paul was willing to offer himself to God and for a season of his life Paul was not yielding to God, he was fighting God. Last week we heard how on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and the last verse of Acts 2 says that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. The courage and sacrifice of the early followers of Jesus caused the church to grow until there were thousands of followers in Jerusalem.
The Christian movement grew as a sect within Judaism known as “The Way” because they followed the way of Jesus and the larger this group grew the more of a threat it became to the religious establishment. Many Jewish leaders became unsettled with this movement so started to harass and persecute those who followed the Way. In Acts 6 and 7 we hear about one leader in the Way named Stephen who was filled with the Holy Spirit and wouldn’t stop talking about Jesus. The religious leaders became so enraged at what Stephen was saying that they brought him before the Sanhedrin where he was tried, condemned and then stoned. As the witnesses where stoning Stephen it says they placed their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul who we know as Paul. Acts 8:1-3
Paul was not only a very educated man who excelled as a leader but he was ambitious. As a young man he wanted to make a name for himself so he volunteered to go out and arrest those people who followed Jesus. Acts 9:1-2.
Paul’s drive, leadership and ambition were also pieces of the puzzle that God used for his purpose and plan. God needed a man driven and ambitious to help spread the gospel across the world and Paul was going to be that man but it wasn’t going to happen until Paul surrendered that ambition to God. As long as Paul’s ambition was focused on making a name for himself it couldn’t be used by God. His ambition needed to be given to God.
It is important to know that ambition and a drive are not always bad things in our lives. That spirit and determination can be used by God but only if we will surrender it to Him first. Paul hadn’t yet surrendered to God, but that moment was coming. Here’s how it happened in Paul’s own words: Acts 26:12-15.
Jesus called Paul from a blinding light and asked Paul why he was persecuting him. Why was Paul kicking against the goads? A goad is a long stick with a sharp point on the end that was used to drive oxen; it kept them moving forward and in the right direction. Think of something like a cattle prod. As long as the ox didn’t fight back the goad didn’t really hurt but if the ox would kick back on the goal it would kick into the sharp point causing pain. God was trying to goad Paul, he was trying to direct and guide him into the way of life and truth but Paul was resisting. Paul fought God, he was kicking back and got to the point where to get Paul’s attention Jesus had to strike him blind on the road to Damascus.
Paul was led into the city where for three days he remained blind. During that time Jesus spoke to one of his followers, a man named Ananias, and told him to go and place his hands on Paul so that he could regain his sight. Ananias was afraid to do this because he had heard about Paul and his desire to persecute, arrest and even kill the followers of Jesus, but God goads Ananias, he prods him and assured him that this was God’s will and that Paul was God’s chosen servant to take the news of Jesus to the Gentiles. In an act of great faith and courage, Ananias finally went to Paul and laid his hands on his eyes and immediately Paul regained his sight and was baptized.
As important as Paul is to the shaping of the Christian faith and its spread around the world, none of it would have been possible without Ananias. Sometimes we think that what God calls us to do isn’t very important, but every step of faithful obedience has the power to change the world. Every simple act of obedience on our part can be used by God to change someone’s life which in turn can touch others, transform a people and change the course of human history. Ananias’ faithfulness is often overlooked in the life and ministry of Paul, but nothing Paul ever said or did would have been possible with him.
What is it that God is calling us to do right now? What simple act of obedience or simple step of faith is God asking us to take? This one step may the step that opens the door to God’s larger purpose in our lives or in the lives of others. You and I just might be the Ananias in the life of the next Paul. To those who were confirmed and baptized today, you might be the Ananias in the life of a friend who will carry the gospel of Jesus Christ to your school or in time to the ends of the world in new and fresh ways.
In the end, God was calling Paul to surrender all the pieces of his life to him so that God could use him to be a missionary to the gentiles and to take the power of the gospel to all the world. And God was calling Ananias to walk down the street in Damascus to lay his hands on a dangerous man who needed to be healed. Both of these men surrendered to God and followed the call of God in their lives and the world was never the same.
How is God calling you? What is God calling you to do? Who is God calling you to be? How is God goading you? What are the pieces of your life that God wants to bring together for His purpose and plan? It took Paul some time to answer these questions in his life – but he did. He was baptized and started to listen and pay attention to God and Paul allowed the Holy Spirit to guide him and he learned from others about Jesus and embraced the call of God in his life. Can we do the same? Can we start to listen and pay attention to God and allow the Holy Spirit to guide us so that we can embrace the call of God in our own lives? When we follow the call, our lives will be forever changed.
Called To Christ
1. Identify the puzzle pieces of your life that God wants to pull together for his purpose. How can God use the following?
• Home life and family
• Emotional and physical health
• Interests, skills, passions, gifts
• Good and bad experiences
• Circle of friends and sphere of influence
2. How have you seen, heard and felt God goading you to more closely follow him?
• When have you listened and followed God?
• When have you rebelled?
3. Take time this week to listen for God’s still small voice calling you. Create times of silence to be still and receptive.
4. While the Apostle Paul was a brilliant orator and could argue the finer points of theology, the best argument Paul ever made for Jesus being the Messiah was offering the proof of his changed life.
• In what ways has Jesus changed your life?
• How can this change be offered as proof that Jesus is the Messiah?
5. Paul would have been nothing without the faithful response of Ananias (Acts 9:10-18).
• How might God be calling you to be an Ananias in someone else’s life?
• What faithful act of courage or step of faith is God asking you to take this week?